SJB merger may spark domino effect

Matt Byrne

What just happened? At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the $1bn merger of SJ Berwin (SJB) and King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) looks capable of kicking off a ramped-up round of global consolidation. For any US or UK firm out there that has lost its way, maybe they should tap ‘Asia’ into the satnav.

That said, the potential for similar deals to follow imminently seems slight. You’d be hard-pushed to come up with a top three of solid Chinese firm merger candidates, with perhaps the most likely being Fangda, Dacheng and Zhong Lun, and the least likely being Jung He, Slaughter and May’s China best friend.

Few Chinese firms have the aspirations of KWM, its internal structure or leadership, with chairman Wang Jun Feng calling the shots at what is an integrated practice in comparison
with most local rivals that are closer in style to barristers’ chambers.

Don’t rule out more strategic alliances though. Recent years have seen a string of smaller-scale associations featuring the likes of Field Fisher Waterhouse, Bird & Bird and McDermott Will & Emery, all of which have pursued less ambitious – and less risky – regional entry strategies.

But let’s get back to the first-ever tie-up between major UK and Asian Pacific firms – a barnstorming deal indeed. Particularly for SJB, it has all the hallmarks of a no-brainer.

Five years ago Mallesons was on the verge of merging with Clifford Chance. Now surely some of the legacy Australian firm’s partners will be thinking, “hang on, we’re merging with SJ Berwin, how did that happen?”. Meanwhile, over at SJB, their opposite numbers will simply be asking “where do I sign?” while keeping their eyes, arms and ears open for the next obvious step – a US deal.

As for SJB’s near-namesake, the similarly triple-lettered, roots-sharing Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), that firm’s present circumstances appear to be proof that fortunes rise and fall.
Last week BLP confirmed it was holding back publication of its profits data, with managing partner Neville Eisenberg admitting he was “in the dark” over the numbers.

A tale of two Berwins indeed.